Occasionally, I wear a delicate golden necklace in the shape of a heartbeat, with a tiny heart accenting to the left. At a funeral, a friend lightly asked me whose heartbeat it symbolizes. I smiled and said my own, unwilling to share the story in that setting. It didn’t seem appropriate to talk about rebirth in the presence of grief. The friend laughed curiously, allowing the question to pass unasked and unanswered. It doesn’t often behoove people to ask about it. I assume they think it is some symbol of love for my children. In some ways it is, but it is also a reminder that the power to live exists within myself.
Eight years ago I became a single mom. One cycle of an abusive relationship ended and I was left terrified, alone and pregnant. The depression that I existed in, worsened. I became a shell of a person, wandering through the day in a fog. I hated every moment of my day and worried constantly about the future. The small joy I could find was in seeing my niece and little brother occasionally. My unborn child gave me a willingness to survive and seek progress, but she did not give me a willingness to truly live. By live I mean, feeling and experiencing, really anything, other than fear and anxiety. I overate rich foods because it was the only thing that could make me feel as if I were alive. I was often dissociated and so far removed from reality that there were periods of my day I wouldn’t remember. I would often find myself thinking, “Am I even real?” I felt powerless—as if my life existed around me, but I didn’t experience any of it.
It took dying to see myself living.
Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia resulting in cardiac arrest killed me. I died in the hospital, alone except for the child in my belly. My heart stopped and I watched myself lay, my large body still on the thin, flat bed while doctors and nurses rushed around me. I watched my body, my shell, without emotion, in the comfort of absence for what seemed like hours, but could only be mere seconds.
I had my first attack when I was nine. I didn’t tell anyone because it was confusing, I wasn’t sure what had even happened. Later on, I assumed they would have told me it was just anxiety. In fact, for many years I dismissed my episodes of rapid heart rate as generalized anxiety, as depression, as PTSD. I can think back to several times I was treated for an issue, when I was likely having an episode or feeling the after effects of one.
The day my heart beat stayed over 170bpm for several hours and I fainted, marked the point where I began seeing a cardiologist regularly. I became no stranger to a holter monitor being strapped to my hip, measuring my heart rate for 24 or 48 hours. But no episodes came. Doctors shrugged a slightly elevated heart rate off as being overweight and sent me off with no answers. Who can blame them? Who suspects a serious heart condition in someone so young without strong empirical evidence?
The day I died, I worked a twelve hour day and came home exhausted from being so largely pregnant. I probably hadn’t had enough water. I probably hadn’t sat down enough. And I probably had too much stress serving beer and cigarettes to gamblers. I worked in a small lottery bar, making minimum wage, saving my tips for taxi money to get to work on the weekends. It was the worst job I’ve ever had. There was a palpable sadness to the place, a tangible despair attached to the lottery machines, and a stink that would permeate my skin until I went home to scrub it off. I always felt as if I were doing the world a disservice by being a witness to that specific type of addiction.
I often felt jealous of the people who had money to gamble away so frivolously. When I returned home, to my dingy apartment, I sat at the tv, begging Netflix to rid me of the grossness of my job. I sought to dissociate myself, but a pounding came in my chest. The pounding began with a resonate pop and felt present, like Tinitis, but of the heart. After fifteen minutes, I measured my pulse. 157bpm. I sidled my butt firmly into place on the couch, preparing to ignore the arrhythmia by distracting myself.
After the first hour, I felt panicky and anxious. I googled ways to slow your heart rate. I sat on the toilet and bared down, blew on my thumb, took a long shower, drank water and tried to lay down. Nothing.
The second hour, I was beginning to get annoyed, so I put the tv back on to distract myself from the constant, quick patter of my heart against my chest.
After the fourth hour, it hurt my legs to stand up. My muscles began to weaken and ache, as if I had spent an hour at the gym. My motor function began to slow and it felt as if walking two feet was actually a mile.
It was the eighth hour. I hadn’t slept. My chest hurt, my breathing came in small, rapid gasps. My head spun whenever I turned my head. I drove myself to the hospital. I should have called 911, but I couldn’t afford the type of bill they would send. And I certainly couldn’t pay for a taxi on my salary. I could barely pay my rent.
I gasped out my symptoms at the hospital and they took my pulse. I don’t remember them telling me how high it was in the moment. I don’t remember anything about the drive there and the check in process. The paperwork at the end told me I was admitted with a heart rate of 277bpm.
I sat on the bed, talking to the nurse, my belly flowing largely between my legs. My body began to feel cold, as if someone had blown ice into my veins. I felt a strange pop in my chest, followed by an absence of feeling. I am told that the cold feeling was my blood pressure dropping and the strange pop was my heart stopping.
I watched my body, as if I were watching a scene in a movie. I watched as the doctors and nurses whirled into the room and attached monitors, barking orders at each other. Nothing can come close to describing the feeling of being outside my body. I felt a part of the universe. A part of a whole. Connected, but separate. I felt comfort in nothingness.
One single word pulled me back into my body. One single word was the umbilical cord, that fed my consciousness back into the physical world.
This word did not come from some divine being. This word did not come from a doctor, gifting me with rebirth. This word came from me. In near death experiences you often hear of a light or spirit guiding the soul back to its body. This didn’t happen to me. Something more powerful happened. I resurrected myself. I, the young woman, who endured a near constant state of overwhelming fear and anxiety, who often existed in a preternatural state of dissociation, found a gift of power and grace within myself. I found the will to breathe.
And within that flat line, on the heart monitor, a new beat pulsed alive.